As a legal educator, I feel it is my duty to expose students to the realities of life, including, on occasion, uncomfortable situations. These are learning experiences that help them grow, be able to formulate their own opinions and inspire them to create a positive influence in the world.
Each year since 2020, I have set out with four students from UCF’s Department of Legal Studies and a team of video producers from UCF’s Center for Distributed Learning on a journey to see circumstances along the U.S.-Mexico border firsthand. This immersive experience has become a documentary series — including the Emmy-winning episodes from the inaugural season, A Break for Impact — that chronicles the lives and hardships of migrants along the border. The docuseries also highlights the nonprofit organizations that work tirelessly to provide refuge and solace to marginalized border populations.
The border does more than stop migrants from crossing — it also blocks the vision of those who do not want to see. The task we have given ourselves is to look and experience reality on the ground, rather than look in the other direction. The plight of those on “the other side of the border” is not easy to look at. It is grim. It is tragic.
Along the migrant trail, we encountered places where frolicking beachgoers swam along a tattered, rusted wall, which is inscribed with the names of deported veterans who fought for our country but died in Mexico waiting to be repatriated. We found the communities we visited were sliced by this physical barrier that separates “them” from “us.”
The wall itself is gargantuan, topped by concertina wire and towers in some places, monitored by drones and patrolled by armed men in boats along the Rio Grande. The wall on the border runs through towns, dividing families, friends, cultures and history. As migrants look to strangers for help, they are easy targets for bandidos, human traffickers and human predators. One must tread carefully to live there.
We walked the vast desert, where sun-bleached crosses protruded from the sand, marking the graves of over 3,000 souls who lost their lives striving to find a better life in America. We wept at the grave of a stillborn child left behind by his mother, who sacrificed everything seeking a fresh start. We wondered how anyone could travel very far on foot in the hot, cold and hostile borderlands of Arizona, California and Texas. For those who have, it would not be possible without hope and faith.
A few merciful people among those working with the nonprofits we visited provide aid to the migrants from the south. There are not enough people or entities to fill the needs of the migrants, but this journey has inspired each student to take action on issues they feel are important. One student is working with one of the nonprofits we visited. Another started an organization to help local migrants. And several others have gone on to law school with an even stronger interest in the legal system. For some students, the experience is a reminder of the challenges they or their parents have faced to make a new life in the United States — and why their studies are so important.
Providing students with experiences to connect to people affected by their field is far more impactful than reading a textbook. Through the docuseries, we aim to show other legal studies students, and anyone who watches it, what connects us all: the hardships of life, the search for freedom and liberty, and the endless pursuit of something greater. We hope they will be moved to become socially engaged and amplify the voices of those who haven’t been given a platform. We also hope they will see the humanitarian side of issues and be inspired to research further than the headlines, champion legislation or share the experience of people seeking help. Each one of us is a strand of hope, and when we weave together what we have seen, experienced and learned, we develop a deeper understanding of the issues that impact us all.
To learn more about the docuseries, visit go.ucf.edu/abfi.
Irene Pons ’00 is a senior lecturer in UCF’s Department of Legal Studies, former attorney for the Mexican Consulate of Orlando and pro bono attorney for the Association of Migrant Farmworkers of Apopka. She earned a bachelor’s in organizational communication from UCF.
Joshua Rubin, founder of Witness at the Border, an organization dedicated to creating awareness of the experiences of migrants, contributed to this article.